Tuesday, June 10, 2014

There is generally plenty of road dust on the highway of a person's spiritual journey.  Among many other things, one makes abbreviated fits and starts in directions off of the highway from time to time and, while they can be instructive and reveal unexpected blessings, they also can lead to dead ends.  In such cases, one sometimes finds oneself backing up over deeply rutted one-way tracks in search of the road that leads back to the highway.  Arriving coughing and scratchy-eyed back on track, one consults the GPS and tries again.

Over the span of my lifetime of seeking spiritual and creative meaning, which to me are ever and inexorably connected, there have been any number of really interesting but not always healthy side roads.  One detour took me down the path of an oddly toxic and narrow church which was sadly poisoned by its insistence upon independence from its mainline parent, becoming exclusionary and fearful as it resisted the influence of the greater denominational connection.

A tough thing about toxic churches is that, superficially at least, they appear to be all about loving care and inclusion and until one gets under the surface it's hard to tell whether they are truly welcoming to all.  They might appear to treat all comers equally but exclude groups such as those who are financially disadvantaged, those who are of other cultures, or those who do not align politically with the majority of the parishioners.

I was employed by such a church for the last two years of my professional ministry and the message I received was harmful and not-so-subtle.  I wasn't of the majority political view, I wasn't conservative enough, I wasn't a Biblical literalist, and I wasn't welcome.

When I left I was confused, angry, and in terrible spiritual pain.  The body of Christ is supposed to embrace, not reject.  The church is supposed to accept a human with all their fallibility and foibles...at least, that's what the handbook, the New Testament, says.  Why did it matter whom I'd voted for in the last election?  What difference did it make whether I didn't agree with the war in Iraq?  And, on a spiritual note, why would I assert things I could not justify or believe?

I learned that backing down the dusty road and bouncing over the bumps and through the ruts would take some doing.  Recovery from a church-bruising is a hard thing, and must be intentionally worked at in order to be successful.  I can't even now say that my recovery is complete, but here are some things I know.

The gifts of God's love and acceptance become manifest first through loving and accepting people, no matter what church (or no church at all) is involved. If a person is a follower of Jesus, chances are that deep down where it matters most, they don't give a flying rip whom you voted for in the last election.

When you are around such people, peacefulness and cooperation tend to abound.  Folks actively seek out ways to find consensus rather than conflict.  They support one another's creativity and expression, since they are not threatened.  Patience, gentleness, joy, and sharing have a place in interactions and decisions.  They become the peaceful community that people can become when they are operating at their best.

I had experienced the Walk to Emmaus, the Protestant version of the Catholic Cursillo retreat, about twenty years ago while still living in Salt Lake City,  and had all but forgotten that particular off-ramp on the highway of my spiritual journey.  This past weekend, I once again had the deep joy and privilege of being a part of the Emmaus weekend pilgrimage.  The work was challenging, the hours were very long, and the whole immersion stretched me.  BUT, what a healing stretching, just like yoga and massage and healing touch all rolled into one, happening in my brain and heart and soul.

It was the culmination of the last five years' intentional spiritual recovery work, as a member of an accepting and reconciling congregation of welcoming people, so many of whom have become dear and deep friends.  It was like standing in the middle of the spring at Lourdes and being bathed in sunlight and cool water all at once.  It was new friends and deepening established friendships.  It was being supported and being privileged to lovingly support others.

And there was beauty.  I learned that providing and creating beauty truly is a way of loving out loud, something I have long suspected. It is true,I know undeniably, that being the purveyor of that which is beautiful is a valid and honorable and sometimes even a sacred thing to be.  Artists are perhaps the most sensitive of all souls to ugliness and squalor, and to the wretchedness that eats the soul with loneliness when denied the ability to create beauty.

What a miraculous thing it is to come back onto the highway which leads to home, healthy and renewed!
When I left I didn't know what this particular 3-day sojourn would reveal or dredge up or celebrate, but I am grateful to have found  love, laughter, song, tears, and joy on the Walk to Emmaus.  Maybe it's having found friends; maybe it's having found that One Friend on the road.

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